Near the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Duke Theseus offers his bride Hippolyta a witty and wise critique of the play-within-the-play that they are watching. “The best in this kind are but shadows;” he says, “and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” The Theatre Intime — Princeton Shakespeare Company collaborative production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, at Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through November 15, takes on the daunting challenges of Shakespeare’s early romantic tragedy with energy and intelligence, but at times makes inordinate demands on the audience’s imagination and ability to suspend disbelief.
The production features some strong individual performances, consistently high production values, and clear, effective staging of the numerous scenes and the complex action of the play. The difficult lines — richly poetic, full of figurative language, colorful imagery, paradoxes and puns — are mostly well memorized and seemingly well understood by the actors, but the audience’s imagination is indeed strained, as performers often fail to communicate those lines and their characters with clear and dramatic expression and meaning.
Charlie Baker’s Mercutio, Sean Toland’s Friar Laurence, Robby Keown’s Romeo, and Justin Poser’s Tybalt provide strong, lucid, captivating characterizations, but other actors at times do not credibly and clearly deliver the Shakespearean language and engage the audience. In this play, clashing attitudes and concerns between adults and youths are crucial issues, but the age stretches for the six of these fourteen mostly undergraduate — one graduate student — actors playing adult roles are formidable. With luck, demands on the audience’s imagination to fill in credibility gaps may diminish as the play moves into its second weekend; these performers should settle more comfortably and confidently into their roles, diction and projection should sharpen, and the chemistry between the title character lovers should warm up.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, early in his career, before the great tragedies, in the same years (1595-96) as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays are concerned with how the “course of true love never did run smooth,” and they share similar comedic elements until the tone of Romeo and Juliet darkens half way through and the play turns to the tragic mode.
Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in Western literature, perhaps in all literature. Over the 420 years since its creation it has inspired thousands of productions and hundreds of different adaptations for stage and screen around the world. Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie with its beautiful Italian settings and unforgettable musical score, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and the action updated to present-day Verona Beach, Florida, the great 1957 musical West Side Story, set in the streets of New York City, and Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet come most readily to mind, but there has also been a gnome version (“Gnomeo and Juliet”), a feline version, a sea lions cartoon version, a martial arts version — is there a time period in history or a place on the globe that has not served as a setting for the retelling of this powerful tale?
“It is too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden, too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere one can say ‘It lightens,’” Juliet (Rachel Stone) warns Romeo after they exchange their first vows of love. And soon afterwards, from Friar Laurence, Romeo receives another warning, similar in its dramatic imagery and urgency: “These violent delights have violent ends and in their triumph die, like fire and powder, which as they kiss consume.”
Of course, the nature and intensity of their passion make it impossible for Romeo and Juliet to heed these warnings, impossible for them to do anything but self-destruct in pursuing their desires. Amidst a bitter feud between their powerful families, Romeo and Juliet suffer a combination of bad luck, feckless adult influences, and mocking, impetuous friends to help speed them on their tragic trajectory. From Romeo’s first glimpse of Juliet (“Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!”) at her father’s masquerade party, to their shyness and first kiss, Juliet’s realization that their families are dire enemies, through the balcony scene and their first declarations of love for each other (“My bounty,” says Juliet, “is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite.”), their secret marriage, Romeo’s banishment, and their final encounter, their romance is enthralling, the poetic language is rich and moving, but their doom is inevitable.
Mr. Keown’s Romeo is worthy and convincing as both fighter and lover. Dressed all in white, a strong costuming statement, he and Ms. Stone are set apart from their more darkly clad peers. All are in contemporary attire, although the language and other elements of the play remain traditional. Ms. Stone is an appealing Juliet, though her words and her shifting emotions do not always project with sufficient clarity and impact. Too much of the rich language is lost here.
Mr. Baker as the eloquent, ebullient Mercutio, ill-fated comrade to Romeo, is the most successful of the company in communicating character, dramatic movement and the rich poetry — so sad, for many reasons, that he does not survive past intermission. Mr. Toland, as a bespectacled, side-burned Friar Laurence, presents the most convincing of the older generation characters, while Mr. Poser’s “fiery” cousin Tybalt proves a suitably fearsome adversary for Mercutio and Romeo.
Jessica Li as Juliet’s nurse is entertainingly playful, talkative, bawdy and meddlesome, though less than convincing as a maternal figure. Miranda Bolef as a female transformation of Benvolio, Sam Kessler as an authoritative Prince Escalus, and Christian Gray as Juliet’s hapless fiancé Paris all present sound characterizations and deliver the 16th century prose and poetry with understanding and intelligibility. T.J. Smith and Kristin Coke as the Capulets, irascible father and fretful mother, Lydia Watt as Montague and Joseph Labatt and Jacob Zweiback, each in a variety of different roles, lend support throughout the evening.
Rachel Wilson, Princeton University junior, has directed this challenging production with skill and sensitivity. The action moves swiftly from scene to scene, and the plot — though not always all the lines — flows smoothly and dynamically from start to finish of this two-and-a-half-hour production. Wesley Cornwell’s unit set, constructed entirely of hundreds of wooden pallets stacked from floor to ceiling, provides the smell of a lumberyard and a bit of the look of a ramshackle shantytown, but the simplicity is effective in staging the action economically, providing the requisite entrances, exits and multiple levels for more than twenty different scenes, including balcony, bedroom, ballroom, street, underground tomb and others. Hannah Yang’s creative, nuanced lighting design contributes significantly in establishing the changing venues and in communicating the ominous shifts in mood as the action darkens from comedy to romance to tragedy. Savannah Marquandt’s contemporary costumes and Matt Smith’s portentous sound contribute further to the creation of the intense, dangerous, shifting world of the play.
“More light and light, more dark and dark our woes!” Romeo observes as he leaves Juliet at sunrise to serve out his sentence of banishment. As the stage lights darken for the final time at the end of this play, the Prince intones his final tragic pronouncement on the proceedings: “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” Despite some lapses in this production, the audience reaps abundant reminders of the greatness of the Bard (even so early in his career), the beauty and richness of his poetry, and the power of these two lovers to remain, more than four centuries later, our enduring model of true love.
The Theatre Intime’s and Princeton Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” will run for one more weekend, November 13-15, with performances Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. in the Hamilton-Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.theatreintime.org for tickets and information.